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Aaron David Miller: Obama must own the Mideast peace talks

  • Foreign Policy
  • Published Thursday, August 15, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Now that Secretary of State John Kerry has succeeded in getting Israelis and Palestinians together so they can talk face to face, he probably won’t be surprised to learn that direct talks have almost never delivered an Arab-Israeli agreement that lasted.

In almost all of the breakthroughs in Arab-Israeli peacemaking over the past 50 years, direct talks without a mediator have delivered only one agreement that has endured. The rest of the time, Americans played the critical role in actually brokering the accord.

Indeed, if the United States wants an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, not only will Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas have to own these talks, but John Kerry and Barack Obama will, too – big time.

One of the most intriguing urban legends of the peace process is that the way to Arab-Israeli peace is through direct face-to-face negotiations. The myth has a very compelling and heroic cast to it, particularly for many Israelis who seem to believe that all they really need is an empty room, no preconditions, some Palestinians – and poof, we can reach an agreement.

The logic appears compelling enough. Only when Arabs and Israelis sit face to face, work out their problems, and build trust and confidence can the magic of an agreement happen. Isn’t the best way to get things done to eliminate the third party and deal directly with one another?

No. The problem with this reading of history is that the facts show that these sort of interactions were, more often than not, a peace-process fairy tale. Sadly, the set of near misses and successes in peacemaking isn’t a terribly large one. So we can evaluate the historical record pretty easily. And here’s what it shows.

The much-ballyhooed notion of direct negotiations in which the parties themselves did most, if not all, of the heavy lifting really succeeded only once. And that was the odd case of an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty whose territorial, security and political issues paled in comparison with those on the Syrian, Egyptian or Palestinian front. When you combine strong and committed leaders (Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein) who like, respect and trust one another with real, tractable issues, the chances are that a DIY approach will work. But there’s also a very good chance that the Israeli-Jordanian situation can’t be replicated. And guess what? It hasn’t been.

In fact, the only other example of a process driven by direct talks with little third-party involvement, at least for the first four years, was Oslo. And Oslo was a veritable poster child for the imperfections of a negotiation that could have used, at critical points along the way, timely third-party intervention.

It is true that mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization could only have been done directly by the two sides themselves. And direct secret talks did form close relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. Given the odds against Oslo succeeding, the interim accords were remarkably creative.

But to expect agreements worked out between the occupier and the occupied and then to imagine a smooth transition to different roles (let alone negotiating thorny issues such as Jerusalem and borders – when neither side had fulfilled the expectations of the other on the interim accords) was a bridge too far. Perhaps no third-party broker could have managed it. But clearly the two sides doing it themselves never had a chance.

Two of the three remaining successes in the history of Arab-Israeli peacemaking – the Kissinger disengagement accords between Israel and Egypt and between Israel and Syria (1973-75), and the Madrid Peace Conference (1991) – were driven by the United States with almost no direct contact between the parties. Not surprisingly, both came in the wake of regional military conflicts in which the Arabs and Israelis were prepared to accept major U.S. involvement and Washington had the will and skill to deliver.

It is very true that the third success – the Egyptian-Israeli peace process and treaty – began with direct and secret contact between Anwar Sadat’s and Menachem Begin’s emissaries that paved the way for the Egyptian leader’s 1977 visit to Jerusalem.

But within weeks, the process would enter what became a chronic state of dysfunction over differences small and large. It would take not one but two major interventions by President Carter to rescue the breakthrough and to sign an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty two years later. Indeed, the Camp David accords that led to the treaty were the mother of all U.S.-mediated agreements – a 12-day summit in which Begin and Sadat met only a few times. Carter drove the process with a great deal of help from their Israeli and Egyptian subordinates. Sadat and Begin made it possible. Carter made it real.

If nothing else emerges from this quick romp through the history of Arab-Israeli diplomacy, it’s that agreements, particularly ones that purport to define the endgame, will need more than just putting the two sides in a room and hoping for the best. The odds against Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas reaching an accord on the key issues, let alone a conflict-ending agreement on their own, are zero.

Active U.S. mediation will be required to accomplish anything substantial. And this doesn’t mean “facilitating,” a strange word that roughly falls somewhere between doing nothing and making sure that lunch arrives on time.

It would be nice if Netanyahu and Abbas were able to make dramatic concessions to each other own on the core issues and thus enter into their own negotiations. In fact, it would be ideal. But that’s unlikely.

For now, the U.S. may be best playing the role of the facilitator: Give Israelis and Palestinians a decent interval to see what they can do on their own, see where the gaps are, and for political reasons give direct talks between the two sides space and time without crowding them.

But if these talks have any chance of succeeding, they will require hands-on American involvement, and not as facilitator but as broker – helping to set terms of reference, proposing ideas and bridging proposals that are fair, and controlling the text of an agreement, not to mention monitoring implementation.

And one other thing, too. John Kerry may be the set-up guy who narrows the gaps between the Israelis and Palestinians and builds the bridge between them. But Barack Obama will need to be hands-on for the endgame – and the guy who gets them both to cross it. This is likely going to require ample doses of honey (and vinegar, too) because the president will likely have to push both sides further than they thought they were willing to go; and this will mean more than a little unpleasantness, particularly with the Israelis.

Right now, nobody should discount the Kerry effort. But nobody should think cavalierly in terms of an expansive Israeli-Palestinian agreement either. If an agreement is to emerge, direct negotiations will be necessary but not sufficient. Netanyahu and Abbas will have to stretch very far. And the Americans sooner rather than later will need to be involved in the stretching.

There’s no making Israeli-Palestinian peace on the cheap, none created by spontaneous combustion, and it doesn’t grow in a bell jar. It’s going to take some major doing in Washington. Indeed, if Barack Obama wants to earn his Nobel Peace Prize, I’ve got a pretty good idea of how he can do it.

Aaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives and a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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